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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Conrad Odell Pearson, April 18, 1979. Interview H-0218. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Origins of the <cite>Hocutt</cite> case

Pearson discusses the rational and strategy behind the <cite>Hocutt</cite> case against segregation in higher education in North Carolina. Having just graduated from Howard Law School, Pearson was one of the leading attorneys in this case, along with Cecil McCoy. Pearson identifies their main goal as testing the courts willingness to uphold de facto segregation in higher education. Additionally, he describes how the court case evoked fear among some African Americans that racial violence would erupt as a result.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Conrad Odell Pearson, April 18, 1979. Interview H-0218. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

WALTER WEARE:
Well, I'm interested, and they're interested in this oral history program in kind of the background—and maybe there are some things that people don't know, particularly about the community. Do you know how the case began? Who made the first move?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
Well, I conceived of the idea when I was in Howard Law School.
WALTER WEARE:
And that would have been when?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
1932. I graduated in 1932, and I took the bar in December of '31, and passed it. So I was lawyer in law school. So I conceived of it, and came back to North Carolina and talked about it. I had an associate by the name of Cecil A. McCoy.
WALTER WEARE:
Where was he from?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
He was from Durham, but I think he finished Brooklyn Law School. Somewhere in Long Island.
WALTER WEARE:
How long had he been here?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
This was his home.
WALTER WEARE:
But I mean, how long had he been in the law?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
I don't think he finished law school. I think he did enough to comply with the requirements of the North Carolina bar at that time.
WALTER WEARE:
But he was a practicing attorney in Durham when you got out of law school?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
Yes. And I discussed it with him, and he was for it. The next thing we had to do was find a plaintiff. And we went to the high schools and talked with the principals and tried to find out who the brilliant students were. And we went to all of their houses and they turned it down. They were afraid of reprisals. And Hocutt had worked in the drugstore for years. I don't know what his background was. I don't think he had anybody to help him or anything. And in the meantime he was going to school down here at the North Carolina College, at that time—it's North Carolina Central now. So he wanted to be a pharmacist. So we interested him in it, and we drew the complaint. 'Course a complaint drawn back in those days, lawyers would probably laugh at it now. The law has progressed so, since from that time. And we made a cardinal mistake because we should never have brought him [the case] in state court. Because the state court, judicially at that time, was committed to the status quo, and Jesus Christ couldn't have won the case if he had been the lawyer on the case. Well, it was radical in that no one had ever challenged the system of discriminating on the base of race in state institutions. And we found out from this law suit that you aren't going to win anything in the state courts. Because they could tie you up, and they could write a decision, and keep it balled up, and keep it from ever getting to the Supreme Court, you know. So we went back to the drawing board, and we came up with the idea of bringing all these cases under the Fourteenth Amendment in the federal courts. And, of course, the federal courts are all subject to review. In the district court, everything he does he has to put it in writing. In the state court, what the judge does on the local level is not in writing. He delivers his charge to the jury, which is in writing. Then the thing caught fire. It made the national press and it caught fire. And cases began to spring up all over the country. That was the start of the Civil Rights Movement and desegregating the state-controlled schools where Negroes had traditionally been barred.
WALTER WEARE:
Had you thought about other state institutions or public schools? What made you focus on Chapel Hill?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
Well, I looked at, it was called Miche Statutes of North Carolina, and looked at the constitution. And there was nothing in the constitution that barred blacks from the University of North Carolina. It said that the legislature is hereby empowered to constitute one or more universities for the training of the youth of the land. It didn't say anything about race or anything. But traditionally no Negroes had ever applied. And that was the basis of it.
WALTER WEARE:
So, in effect, there was no Jim Crow law for the University.
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
It was custom and usage.
WALTER WEARE:
Now, you had thought of this when you were in law school at Howard. And then when you came to Durham you got in touch with Cecil McCoy?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
Cecil McCoy and I, we had adjoining offices. And we talked it over and he was for it. None of the other lawyers in town had ever thought about it or dreamed about it. After we started it, then they all wanted to get into it. And, of course, we wouldn't let them in. And it divided the town, because, you see, we were just emerging out of the Reconstruction period. And there had been riots in this state. The Wilmington Riot is well known. And the Red Shirt Movement was run by Josephus Daniels the elder and Governor Aycock. Now whether or not they intended it to go as far as it did, I really don't know. But anyway, they used that issue to get control of the Democratic Party—to get the Democratic Party in control. And the Negro citizenry, who were close to the Reconstruction period, figured it was going to end up in riots like they had in Wilmington. So they tried to prevail to let the matter drop.